The four survivors who spoke at the "Break Every Chain" Human Trafficking Awareness Day Conference in Reynoldsburg over the weekend revealed a way of life that many people don't think exists close to home.
Barbara Freeman, Monica Linder, Stephanie Rollins and Sharyl Silva told of running away as teenagers from abusive homes or being coerced by promises of money and a better life, only to be sold on the streets of Columbus, Reynoldsburg and other parts of Ohio, descending into a world of prostitution and drugs.
The conference at Reynoldsburg High School's eSTEM Academy Jan. 11 was coordinated by Reynoldsburg City Councilman Cornelius McGrady III and a group of Reynoldsburg high school students called the Reynoldsburg Youth Human Trafficking Coalition (RYHTC).
McGrady said he has been criticized by some colleagues for organizing the awareness effort.
"I was shocked by someone telling me we don't have to worry about that, so why are you bringing this attention to Reynoldsburg," he said. "This is a safety and economic issue in Reynoldsburg and beyond Reynoldsburg. If you deny the problem exists, there is no plan for action."
The issue of human trafficking is gaining attention at the state level. The day before the conference in Reynoldsburg, the fifth annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day was held at the Ohio Statehouse.
Gov. John Kasich has unveiled plans for a statewide campaign to increase awareness of the problem. It includes placing posters at 14 service plazas along the Ohio Turnpike listing the signs of human trafficking and contact information on how to report suspected cases. In addition, the Department of Public Safety will distribute 5,000 posters; the Department of Youth Services and Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will post materials in youth and adult prisons; the Department of Health has made materials available in all sexually transmitted disease clinics; and the State Library of Ohio will distribute posters to 732 libraries in the state.
The Ohio Attorney General's Office and the State Highway Patrol have both taken stances against human trafficking and legislation introduced in the Ohio House by state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) was co-signed by 90 other lawmakers. House Bill 130 would increase both the penalties for those convicted of human trafficking and protections for the victims.
According to statistics from the Ohio Attorney General's Office, an estimated 1,078 Ohio youths are recruited and trafficked each year.
An estimated 100,000 children are victimized by the commercial sex industry each year in the United States; 14,500 to 17,500 foreigners are trafficked into the U.S. each year, according to the Rescue and Restore Coalition of Central Ohio.
Rollins, a Columbus resident, was 12 when she ran away from home.
"I started running to different areas of town and drugs and alcohol led me to a life on the streets," she said. "I was sold on the streets of Columbus, Reynoldsburg and different parts of Ohio."
Linder said her life spiraled out of control at age 24, when alcohol and drug addiction led her to people on the streets who "promised a lavish life filled with money and drugs."
"Each day, I was doped up and sold to the highest bidder," she said. "I felt like an animal that was kept locked in a cage, only to be beaten at the first sign of defiance."
Silva grew up in Yuma, Colo., but at the age of 12 was "coerced and raped by a 32-year-old man."
"I became his girlfriend," she said.
By age 18, she said, she was hooked on crack cocaine and "hitting the track" as a prostitute. She moved to Columbus in 2008 but quickly "found out where the dope boys were and ended up on the track here, as well."
"I was being trafficked not only in Columbus but in Reynoldsburg," she said.
Freeman said she was 16 when she was introduced to crack cocaine by a man eight years older, who showered her with gifts and money.
"Once I was strung out on drugs, he set me up with an older lady to set me up on the streets," she said. "This man put me in a basement and held me hostage for years and transported me to different houses to have sex for money.
"I've been in suburbs, garages, in hotels downtown and arrested for prostitution numerous times," she said. "No one asked me, 'Are you OK?' Two police officers stopped me once just to ask how much money I had made that day."
What all the women had in common, besides being trafficked and abused, were their arrests for prostitution. They ended up in C.A.T.C.H Court (Changing Actions To Change Habits), a program begun by Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Paul Herbert.
Herbert said he saw so many women in his court charged with prostitution that he thought, "I need to find out why so many women would sell themselves to vile strangers."
His research into the problem included reading a book called Pimpology, written by a former pimp.
"The bottom line in this book was this comment, 'Make her believe in heaven and she will follow you to hell,' " Herbert said. "You have about 1,000 women arrested every year for prostitution in Ohio and at least 920 of them are human-trafficking victims."
Herbert's CATCH Court is a two-year program that gives women a path to exit prostitution, placing them in safe houses and into long-term drug and alcohol treatment programs.
Freeman has become a motivational speaker and an advocate for girls and women on the street.
"We need to help these young ones break free," she said. "Don't go home and forget about what you heard today. Let us stand together and make an impact to do something about this."